shop and save

They say that the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes.  I say I’d add one more to the list:  You have to eat.  And food costs money.

Grocery spending has long been hard to nail down by the folks that do this kind of surveying, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average consumer spent $3,624 in 2010 on food “at home.”  That’s about $300 a month. Whether you generally spend more or less than that number, groceries likely account for a big chunk of your budget.

So I’m here to give you a few tips that will help you cut back. Consider these before you grab your next shopping cart:

Don’t be afraid to buy generic. Many of the less-expensive brands at the bottom of the shelf are manufactured by the same companies that make the brand name products. Companies are understandably reluctant to acknowledge this, but Consumer Reports published a study a few years ago that found that big names such as Reynolds wrap, Baush & Lomb, and Birds Eye also make store-brand versions of their products. In these cases, what you’re getting is virtually the same product in a not-so-flashy wrapper.

Go frozen. Fruits and vegetables are flash frozen at the peak of freshness, so you can get them out of season for less in the freezer aisle. Once defrosted, they taste great and are much cheaper than fresh.

Limit your shopping trips. Every time you go into the grocery store, you’re bombarded with opportunities to buy on impulse. Chances are, you will walk out with one or two things not on your list. Instead, make one big trip for the whole week.

Shop health food stores. They tend to have bulk food sections, where you can buy things like cereal, dry beans, and dry fruit by weight at a big savings.  If you need other items in bulk, like toilet paper and packaged snacks, consider a membership to a club like Costco or Sam’s Club.  You’ll pay about $40 a year, but it can be worth it if you shop often enough.  Just don’t buy more than you can eat.

Stock up. If the store is having a big sale on non-perishable items like canned goods, grains, or toilet paper, and you know you’ll use them eventually, buy now and put them in your pantry or basement.

Remember that convenience costs. You can buy a single-serve can of vegetable soup for $2 or ingredients to cook up a pot that will last you a week for a few more bucks. If you have the time, you’re always better off forgoing convenience items—those 100-calorie packs, for instance, are pricey—and doing the packaging yourself.

Compare apples to apples. Make sure to look at the unit price, which will tell you the cost by weight. It might make sense to pay $1 more if you’re getting more servings in that package.

Clip coupons. Spending a few minutes with the store and Sunday circulars—without a great deal of effort – can save you hundreds of dollars a year.  You don’t have to get extreme about it to save some cash.

Know when to buy organic – and when to go conventional.  It depends on the item. Personally, I’d love to buy everything organic, because I know it’s better for the environment and likely my health. But in reality, it’s just not affordable when, say, an organic avocado can be more than twice the price of one grown conventionally. The one organic item I buy consistently is milk—the shelf life of organic milk is much longer than non-organic, and we don’t drink all that much of it in my house. Organic prevents me from throwing milk away. Then I often refer to this list, put together by the Environmental Working Group, of the twelve most contaminated types of produce: Peaches; Apples; Sweet bell peppers; Celery; Nectarines; Strawberries; Cherries; Pears; Grapes (imported); Spinach; Lettuce and Potatoes